The other day my watch stopped. If it was up to me I wouldn´t wear one, and free myself from the daily tyranny of clock-watching, but as an English teacher one must be punctual, so I took a stroll across the plaza on the hunch that I had seen an old watch-repair shop on Calle Argumosa where I could get the battery changed. And I was right: tucked next to Ali´s bar was a premises with a faded sign and a tattered awning that was once blue and yellow. I stepped through the entrance and into one of the smallest shops I have ever seen. I have been in bigger elevators. Imagine four telephone boxes knocked together into one and you get the idea.
The air was thick with smoke, coiling up from a half-smoked cigarette in an overflowing ashtray on the counter. Tucked in the corner was the owner, an elderly gentleman wearing an antiquated eye-piece which made him look like a minor character in a Ridley Scott sci-fi film. Shrivelled but benign, with wisps of white hair, yellowed fingertips and a grey smoker´s complexion, he was illuminated in a pool of light from an ancient angle-poise lamp. He put aside the watch he was fixing and set about dismantling mine to replace the battery. I glanced around the shop while I waited.
It was a kind of nightmarish vision of time ticking away while he worked. Among the collection of old clocks there were ghastly carriage- clocks that you might once have been given on your retirement, at least five grandfather clocks, two cuckoo clocks, and a dusty glass case full of defunct time-pieces like a watch graveyard. Tick… tick… tick….. all out of synch, all of them caked in dust and running at their own particular rhythm, competing with each other, the sound broken only by the occasional mournful chiming of one of the grandfather clocks. I doubt the shop had been decorated since its inauguration which looked to be some time in the fifties or sixties. The ceiling flaked with damp, there was a stained corduroy board at the back of him and where there was paint it flaked and peeled. He had a geriatric till and one of the prototype credit-card machines that remind me of the instruments used back in the days when shoe-shops measured childrens´feet for fitting.
As I waited a fearsome-looking woman bustled into the shop and, squeezing next to me, lent over the counter to ask him
´Have you finished mine yet?´
´Not yet, I´m afraid.´ he replied calmly, taking a drag on his cigarette, meticulously replacing it in the ashtray, then worrying away at my watch with a miniature screw-driver. ´I´ve been rushed off my feet all day.´
I was in no hurry so I suggested he finish the lady´s order while I waited. Of course, I got no thank you from her, more fool me, just an evil look and a tightening of the folded arms across the chest. But I was happy for her to be served first while I waited, soaking in the weirdness of the shop and its owner. I left a little later, five euros poorer but with a functioning watch. As I left he methodically returned to the previous task, adjusting his magnifying eye-piece and lighting up another fag.
How can I explain how happy it makes me to find surviving pockets of old Spain in this age where our purchasing habits are run by a virtual police-state of supermarkets, global corporations and health and safety regulations? These little gems are dotted around the city still, and if you look hard enough you will find them. Like the shop near Atocha that sells only screws. Any and every type of screw you can imagine and nothing else. Luckily for us, gone are the days when you had to wait in the bank queue until the teller had finished his or her cigarette and phone call, only to turn a baleful eye on you, but it still makes me disproportionately happy to think of this wizened old man smoking himself stupid in his tatty little shop and raking in the money (´rushed off his feet´). Time functions in mysterious ways in Lavapies- on the one hand it leaps forward into multiculturalism with barely a moment to catch its breath, and on the other hand in these hidden, dusty corners of the city it decides to stand perfectly still for forty or fifty years. And that is the infuriating and fascinating dichotomy of Spain- you´ll never get your internet connection repaired on time, a straight answer from a bank, or even eye contact while buying a new shirt, but you do get the Old clinging fiercely to the New, rising to the surface like a trapped air bubble. And if there is a gaping hole which could be (but isn´t) filled by Northern European efficiency, in my opinion the tenacity of everything that is old and traditional is ample compensation.